Jesus told his disciples they knew very well how power works in this world. Without a doubt, they were painfully aware of how Roman power worked, and even how the power structures of the chief priests and scribes worked. In fact, all of it worked against them and their Master.
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” (10:42)
Movement in this world requires grabs for power and position, hunting for personal importance and reputation, and discovering who my subordinates are. But movement in the Kingdom of God is very different.
“But it shall not be so among you.” (10:43)
Following the example of Jesus means we learn to serve before we control; we learn to be “slave of all” before we assert our personal importance; we learn to be led before we lead.
This issue resulted from the third time Jesus predicted His death, and the third time the disciples took it to grab for importance. The first time, Peter actually rebuked Jesus. The second time, the disciples argued in whispers about which of them was the greatest. The third time, James and John simply came out with it—they were the most important of the disciples and they wanted Jesus to assure them of their positions.
We learn very quickly through these three conversations that the disciples’ view of Jesus was still more conditioned by the culture around them—the kingdom of this world—than it was by Jesus Himself and His Kingdom. And because they related to Jesus with the wrong set of ideas in their hearts and minds, they easily fell into at least three traps. Because of their grasp for earthly power and position, they misunderstood Jesus, manipulated Jesus, and mistreated their fellow disciples.
The disciples misunderstood the life and example of Jesus. In fact, they misunderstood his very vocabulary. Jesus told them they were on their way to Jerusalem where he would die and rise on the third day (10:33-34), and instead of offering their sympathy, aid, or even being honest about their confusion or fear, they wanted to know which of them would rule as His greatest assistant in the Kingdom. Jesus is explaining to them that He is on His way to the greatest act of sacrifice and service the world has ever seen, and they are busy picking out thrones.
The depth of their misunderstanding even caused them to try to manipulate Jesus. Before they spring the request (“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”), they try and bait Jesus by asking Him to do whatever they ask of Him. But before we come down too hard on disciples manipulating their relationship with Jesus, we need to come face-to-face with how often we do it. Have you ever used the name or authority of God to get your way and silence other people? Do you only relate to God when you need Him to do something for you?
And then, when the other disciples heard of their request, they became angry with James and John. Why? Because their grab for power not only raised them above their companions, it lowered the others—the rest of the disciples were mistreated. It became clear that James and John considered themselves as more important than the other disciples. The problem with that, and Jesus makes this clear, is that it is exactly the opposite of His example to us, and desire for our lives.
Followers of Christ cannot wield power the way this world does. We are not concerned with influence, fame, prestige or control the way this world is. Instead, we follow in the footsteps of an incarnate Savior who conquered death and hell by going through the cross, and the examples of the apostles who overturned their world by following His lead. Divine wisdom teaches us to leave matters as small and corrupting as power and control to the workings of this world, and to follow the way of Jesus.